Opened Eyes - Balaam Cursing Israel
( Originally Published 1921 )
To-day go up with me into a high mountain. From its peak there is a view, a most wonderful view, that I want you all to see. No, you will not need a field glass. The air is clear and your eyes keen, so that you will miss none of its beauty. Glasses are not worth much, anyway. Some people see little with the best of glasses, and others with dim eyes and no other help see wonders in this world of ours. From the top of this mountain can be seen rushing mountain torrents, and narrow valleys with swift rivers and those that creep along lazily toward the sea. Desolate salt marshes and fertile fields, bleakness and barrenness, beauty and plenty, dark mountains and sunny meadows, every kind of scenery, in fact, is here disclosed to our view. Whichever picture you prefer is yours to see if you will turn your face in the right direction.
It is well that we are here in the morning, for we can look west toward the river Jordan. There at our feet in the valley, nestling in the shade of the acacia woods, is a camp. It is that of Israel, ready now to enter the land that God had promised to give them. For nearly thirty-eight years have the Hebrews wandered back and forth in the wilderness, until now, no longer a band of faint-hearted exiles but a conquering host, they rest before crossing the Jordan, which separates them from the land which is to be their home. Some of you are straining your eyes to see, there in the west, what it is that looks like a hazy blue ribbon binding the country to the river and the mountains. It is the sea, the Great Sea—the Mediterranean we call it now. We shall draw a deep breath of enjoyment as we gaze at the scene and then hurry down the steep path to the valley, for it is today that Balaam is coming to curse Israel.
"Why coming to curse Israel?" you ask in surprise.
Balak, the king of Moab, and his people are terrified because of the coming of the Hebrews. Israel has just conquered and captured two tribes and their kings, with their cities and all their possessions.
What right have these people to camp in the fields of Moab? Balak inquired of himself. True, Israel had asked permission to pass peace-ably through his land and that of the other two kings, but had been refused. Israel was not now to be hindered. At last she had learned that the land God had given her had to be won, and she waged a conquering war upon every obstacle that stood between her and the land of promise.
Balak and the elders of Midian had consulted together and decided that their only safety lay in having Balaam, the wise man and sorcerer, curse these invaders. The Midianites would give him money in plenty, and honor and power, if he would only use his wisdom and counsel to defeat the Israelites. Balak had said to the elders, as he pointed to the camp resting on the borders of Midian, " Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field."
Messengers had gone from Balak to Balaam and entreated him to return with them and curse this people. Whatever you curse will be cursed, they told him, and whatever you bless will be blessed. It was night when the messengers reached his tent, and he was seated in its door. He rose as they alighted and asked their errand, but peremptorily shook his head as they presented Balak's request. His wisdom—and he was a very wise man—told him at once that the mission upon which they asked him to go was a hopeless one. He knew, as another wise man knew and said years afterward,
" There is no wisdom nor understanding
Nor counsel against Jehovah."
But that gold they offered him—how it did tempt him! Could not some way be found by which he could please God, Balak, and Israel? Long after his visitors lay asleep he strode back and forth outside his tent watching the stars. Yes, they were moving with their usual order across the heavens. There seemed to be no disturbance in God's universe. He knew that Jehovah was with Israel, and it was Jehovah's laws that the sons of Jacob were taught to obey. No, the task was too great for him; he would not attempt it. And he told the men so the next morning when he sent them back to Balak with his bribe of gold.
The next evening other messengers from the king were clamoring at his tent door, offering more money and higher honors. Balaam hesitated. Would they remain with him over night? he asked. He must seek the counsel of Jehovah, he told them. All night he tossed and turned upon his bed of hairy skins. Now and then his hands would clinch, itching to have within them the gold the men had brought. Was there not some way in which he could serve Jehovah in whom he believed and also Balak whose gold he coveted? He would try it, any-way. When morning came he told the messengers that he would go with them, adding, "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of Jehovah my God, to do less or more."
Some of you are wondering how a man as wise as Balaam could consider going on such an errand. "Why, it is like trying to go backward and forward at the same time ! " you are saying.
Yes, but the glitter of gold and desire for fame were too much of a temptation ! So he tried to do the impossible and failed, just as, since his time, everyone who has attempted to get good results by doing wrong things has failed. Some of you are saying that wise people do not act that way now. But think a minute. You may be a high-school girl or boy; perhaps you are at the head of your class and will win a scholarship. But, honestly now, did you never hear yourself say after you had failed, perhaps in some small matter, " I knew better than to do it that way all the time?" But you hoped, as we all hope and as Balaam hoped, that you could once at least do wrong and get perfect results. How did Balaam fail? The answer to that question is our story.
As the night shadows faded away his fears disappeared, and with the coming of the sun his courage rose strong and determined. Saddling his ass and calling two of his servants, he started out with them and Balak's messengers. The ass he rode was a spirited animal and carried him swiftly along the road.
Why do you laugh? You are probably picturing to yourselves one of those dejected-looking donkeys that never seem to be more than half awake, and you are amused to think that one of them could move quickly.
But the ass upon which Balaam sat was not a donkey. Asses were favorites with the Hebrews and were fine animals. They were not, of course, swift like the horse, which at that time and for many years after was employed only for war. Horses were forbidden to the Israelites, and never until the time of King David did the Hebrews make use of them.
Balak's messengers were in gay spirits. The wise man was with them and his curse would soon rout the invading Hebrews. Already in imagination they could see the Israelites deserting their tents and fleeing across the plain before pursuing Moabites and Midianites. Balaam, also, pictured in his mind the way he should spend all the money Balak was to give him. He would buy asses and camels, perhaps a bondman or two to do more work for him. Suddenly the ass he rode began to act queerly. She no longer obeyed his guiding hand, but, shaking her head free from the bridle, bolted from the road and plunged into a near-by field. Balaam struck her heavily with his stick and forced her back into the path. For a little distance she obediently trotted as he directed, then reared and plunged with head erect and nostrils distended. Back, back she went until, trembling, she pressed against the vineyard wall, crushing Balaam's foot as she did so. With upraised stick the prophet beat the poor beast until she was forced to move forward.
On and on the company traveled until coming to a narrow cleft between some rocks where it was impossible to turn around, the ass lay down flat upon the ground, crouching in terror before some object which she saw but Salaam. did not. Once more he beat the suffering animal, but she would not rise; then from her mouth came words, and Balaam stood listening as she spoke : "What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?"
Balaam answered in a rage that the only reason he did not kill her was because he had no sword. Once more did the ass speak, and again Balaam replied to her. Lifting his eyes as he did so he beheld the cause of the animal's actions. She had seen what his eyes had not perceived. Blinded with his desire to have his own way and gain the reward Balak had promised him, his eyes were closed. Now with opened eyes he saw the angel of Jehovah with drawn sword standing in the path. Thrice had the angel turned the ass away from her course, but not until now, when Balaam could turn neither to the left nor to the right—when, in other words, there was no possible way of escape for the prophet—did he recognize God's messenger and heed his word.
Are you saying that these things are impossible and that animals do not talk? Because you have never heard them is no sign they cannot. Birds are taught to talk, and they are animals. Who can say that it is only animals walking on two legs that have the gift of speech, but if they are unfortunate enough to possess four it is impossible? We none of us talk because of our feet, do we? But we will not argue, and for those of you who hate to admit that anything of the kind was possible, let me tell you that it was a vision in which Balaam was taught a lesson.
You remember Jacob and his dream the night he lay friendless in the wilderness. He went to sleep a fugitive because of a selfish, grasping nature, but he arose in the morning determined to give and serve because of what God had taught him in a dream. So in a vision was Balaam taught of God. He had started out to curse with his own words, hoping that Jehovah this time would alter his laws for this occasion. But it was not so to be; his opened eyes saw the angel of God guarding with drawn sword every way in which he tried to reach his evil purpose. If you go, declared Jehovah's messenger, you must speak the word that I shall give you.
Baffled and afraid, the prophet went forward with the rest of the company. He dared not go back. That would mean the ridicule and scorn of the men who were with him, and all Moab would say that he was an impostor and was not able to do the deed they had asked of him. Soon the plains of Moab were reached; a few more paces and they would begin to ascend the mountain upon whose summit Balak was waiting for Balaam and his company. Standing upon the same peak from which we saw our beautiful view was Moab's king pointing out to Balaam the tents of Israel far below in the valley. Grasping Balaam tightly by the arm, Balak said, "This host will overpower us if you do not curse them for us."
Balaam, answering, told him that he had no power except what Jehovah gave him and no words save those put into his mouth by Jehovah. Balak had been warned. He should not have insisted that Balaam try his evil spells upon this people who were now peacefully resting in Moab's borders. Balak's gods were change-able; they never could be depended upon. What was wrong for them one day would probably be right on the next day. So Balak, judging Jehovah by his own gods, told Balaam to go on; it might be that today Jehovah would curse. Poor, ignorant king, he and his people had never heard the voice of Jehovah declaring, "For I, Jehovah, change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed."
Balaam walked slowly forward. Before him stretched the panorama of beauty that you and I have just witnessed. The tents of Israel shone in the morning sun, and the turbulent river, dancing across the plain and hurrying along the valley, sparkled as its ripples now and then caught a stray sunbeam. Every tribe was there, each carrying the symbol by which it could be recognized. What perfect order, thought Balaam, as he viewed the twelve sections, each by itself and yet united as one nation. Truly these were Jehovah's people. As he opened his mouth to speak, no sound issued from his lips. What had closed them and made his curse die upon them before it was spoken?
His eyes had again been opened to see a shimmering glow of light in the center of the camp. It looked like a cloud, but shot through as it was with dazzling brilliancy, he knew that it was more than a cloud. It was the light that brooded always during the daytime over the ark of the covenant. Israel followed this light which always went before them. It meant the presence of Jehovah, their God. Could Balaam curse when Jehovah and his blessing were present? So upon the listening ears of the astonished Balak there fell words of wondrous blessing for Israel. When the speech ended, he angrily accused Balaam of wishing the enemy good instead of harm. "But, come now," he added, "you must view the camp from another spot and from there you may be able to curse." This time he led the prophet to a place from which could be seen only a part of the Hebrew host. He must have thought that the sight of the great orderly host of Israel had made Balaam afraid, and discouraged him in the beginning. But the second attempt was no better than the first, and the silent Hebrews again received the blessing of their God from the mouth of Balaam.
Balak, now thoroughly alarmed, urged that Balaam stop and neither curse nor bless these people. But when a man is moved by the Spirit of God, he cannot stop when he pleases, but must go on and finish his work. And this is what Balaam told the king : " All that Jehovah speaketh, that I must do."
One more trial was Balak willing to give Balaam, so he said to him, " Come now, I will take thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence."
But the other place was no better. God seemed to be the same no matter where Balaam stood, and a greater and more wonderful blessing upon Israel came from the lips of Balaam.
The king of Moab was now thoroughly enraged. He was so angry that for the moment he forgot his fear and bade Balaam flee to his own people. The prophet, standing before him, then uttered the words which form one of the greatest speeches ever made, so true are they. It was not of the petty tyrant Baal he was speaking, the god whose whims would change with each new day and whose favor could be bought and sold by his worshipers. No, it was of Jehovah he spoke when he said, "He hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it."
Think of it, boys and girls. Not a blessing that really is a blessing can be altered or changed. How hard this Moabitish king and his followers had tried to obstruct God's way, and all they had realized was disappointment and time wasted! Balak's anger at Balaam resulted in drawing down a curse upon himself, for the prophet turned and told of the overthrow of Moab by Israel. Every net that we set for the feet of another only entangles our own. There are some people who do not or will not see this. But Balaam's eyes were opened to acknowledge it.
As night fell he went down the mountain side alone, first pausing to look once more at the camp below him. The cloud over the tabernacle had disappeared and in its place was a pillar of fire. Did his ears catch the refrain of words to be spoken in the years that came after him—words saying, " Our God is a consuming fire," destroying every false thing that dared deny the good with which He blesses his children?
As he journeyed homeward and the stars came out one by one, he stroked kindly the neck of the ass he rode, trusting to her unerring instinct to carry him safely through the darkness to the door of his tent. As he reached his home and stood before his tent door he uncovered his head. Jehovah had spoken through the instinct of the brute, the light of the stars, and in his own heart. Together they had blended in one musical tone, repeating the refrain, "God's will is blessing."